The visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will seek to determine whether it will be possible to present an Israeli-Palestinian accord to the world, or even a partial document of agreement, before the end of the current year. Nine months have passed since the Annapolis conference, which was held at the behest of Rice and where the participants promised to "make every effort" to reach a settlement by the end of 2008. Any attempt to redeem that promise will take place in the shadow of a political crisis in Israel.
Is a settlement possible? There are serious disagreements in the Israeli leadership over the answer to this. Before bridging the differences between Israelis and Palestinians, Rice will have to pave the way between the contradictory viewpoints of her hosts in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert believes that it is possible and necessary to reach a "shelf agreement" now - a deal whose implementation will be spread over a decade. The agreement would determine the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements and resolve the refugee question. Olmert believes that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, also would like to reach such an agreement, and so do the Americans. The Bush administration is eager to have some diplomatic achievement before the end of a disappointing tenure. The candidates who hope to succeed him, John McCain and Barack Obama, have told Olmert that they would be glad if Bush would lift the burden of negotiating the Israeli-Palestinian peace from their shoulders.
Olmert faces opposition from both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In their view, Israel must not rush. Livni believes that detailed negotiations must continue on all issues, and that Israel should avoid an unclear agreement. She also supports deferring resolution of the Jerusalem quagmire. Barak has warned against dangerous illusions, at a time when the gap between the two sides remain substantial.
The respective political interests of all those involved is obvious. Olmert is due to step down and wants to end his shortened tenure with a diplomatic achievement. Livni and Barak, who will soon face voters in elections, would prefer to wait for him to go. The prime minister rejects their criticism. His aides say that he is not rushing, and will not relinquish any essential Israeli interests for the sake of a mere document. The principles of the agreement are clear, the aides say, all those involved in it favor the agreement, and it would be a shame to miss this opportunity because of domestic political differences.
On one issue, all three agree: They reject the idea put forth by Rice, to publish a document of partial agreements detailing the positions of each side on different issues. In their view, such a document would only harm Israel and would serve as a basis for pressure in the future. Following a meeting in Washington with Rice and Abbas in late July, Livni is of the opinion that the idea will be dropped.
However, Rice is keen on showing gains, especially in light of the growing criticism directed against her in the United States. The columnist Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post wrote Sunday that the secretary of state had been "ineffective, petulant and overly tactical" in responding to the crisis in the Caucasus. Hoagland lay responsibility on Rice for the failed Russia policy of the Bush administration and wrote that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dealt with the crisis in Georgia directly vis-a-vis his counterparts in Moscow, whereas the Russian Foreign Minister screened the calls from Rice. Thus, wounded and eager for some sort of positive legacy, Rice was to arrive Monday on another frustrating mission in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
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